Brian Allee-Walsh

Time will tell if Mark Ingram has run aground with Saints

New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram celebrates his third-quarter touchdown reception against the Chiefs in Kansas City on Oct. 23. Ingram didn’t touch the ball after his fourth-quarter fumble against the Chiefs and he never saw the field again after his first-quarter fumble against the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday.
New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram celebrates his third-quarter touchdown reception against the Chiefs in Kansas City on Oct. 23. Ingram didn’t touch the ball after his fourth-quarter fumble against the Chiefs and he never saw the field again after his first-quarter fumble against the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday. AP

An interesting movement is afoot in Who Dat Nation.

There seems to be a sizable disgruntled segment of the Black and Gold fan base that wants a change of direction at running back for the suddenly born-again New Orleans Saints. That is, coach Sean Payton should keep starter Mark Ingram’s fanny on the bench and build the running game around 30-year-old comeback kid Tim Hightower.

I get it.

I understand the disenchantment with Ingram, who now has committed a costly turnover in two consecutive games, the latest coming in Sunday’s impressive 25-20 win against the NFC West-leading Seattle Seahawks at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

But I’m not ready to throw out the baby (Ingram) with the bath water.

Ingram entered Payton’s doghouse midway in the first quarter after losing a ball that ultimately ended up in the end zone on a 34-yard fumble return by opportunistic Seahawks safety Earl Thomas.

A week earlier against Kansas City, Ingram got the ball punched out of his grasp inside the Chiefs 10 with 8:37 remaining, ending the Saints’ bid to cut into a 24-14 deficit. The Chiefs prevailed 27-21.

Ingram didn’t touch the ball again after his fumble against Kansas City.

He never saw the field again after his fumble against Seattle, receiving an in-game demotion from a visibly agitated Payton. Hightower took advantage of the opportunity, rushing for a season-high 102 yards on 26 carries against a gritty Seahawks run defense.

It marks Hightower’s second 100-yard game since resurrecting his NFL career in New Orleans last season after recovering from multiple knee surgeries. In just his third start in more than four years, Hightower rushed 27 times for 122 yards and two touchdowns against Jacksonville in Week 16 last season.

In six previous games this season, Hightower had rushed 19 times for 88 yards with no more than five carries (Kansas City) or 39 yards (Carolina) in any one game.

Against Seattle, Hightower performed yeoman’s work and carried out Payton’s game plan flawlessly. He ran hard between the tackles. He showed outside burst, especially on the 28-yarder that marked the Saints’ longest run from scrimmage this season.

Equally important, Hightower didn’t lose the ball.

Consequently, Hightower has earned more playing time, beginning Sunday at 3:05 p.m. against the floundering San Francisco 49ers at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.

And while I think Ingram will have to earn his way back into Payton’s good graces, he hasn’t lost his spot in the team’s running-back-by-committee approach that includes rookie Daniel Lasco, Travaris Cadet and fullback John Kuhn. Yes, the number of touches Ingram gets going forward may decrease but he still is the most effective receiver coming out of the backfield.

Truth be told, there is no true “featured’’ back in Payton’s multiple-set offense, although Ingram comes the closest to fitting that description because of his four-year, $16 million contract. Each running back plays a specific role in certain formations and personnel packages depending on down and distance.

In the Saints offense, running backs simply are interchangeable parts.

It will be interesting to see how Mark Ingram, a No. 1 pick in 2011 and Heisman Trophy winner in 2009, reacts to this sudden change.

Brian Allee-Walsh is a longtime Saints reporter based in New Orleans. He can be reached at sports@sunherald.com.

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